Woman Enters Plea in Financial Scheme

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Elizabeth Mulder Photo courtesy of LBPD
Elizabeth Mulder
Photo courtesy of LBPD

A Laguna Beach woman who passed herself off as a professional financial expert preyed on friends and exploited family ties to embezzle $1.5 million from six local businesses since 2011.

Elizabeth Jane Mulder, 34, whom one victim likened to Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and filing a false tax return, according to the agreement, dated May 15 and filed in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana.

Business owners and court records say that Mulder employed a variety of fraudulent schemes, but mostly diverted tax payments of clients to her own Mulder Financial account, boldly named Income Tax Payments, which police described as a phony business account. She used the funds for such indulgences as a rental home on Summit Drive in Laguna Beach, cosmetic surgery, vacations, expensive jewelry and horse rentals, police and former clients said.

Her defense attorney, Katherine T. Corrigan of Newport Beach, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

At least one merchant, Mike Cochran, said he lost his 22-year business and livelihood, California Print 2 Copy in Irvine, due to losses and tax penalties that resulted from the scam. “She got us into a world of trouble,” said Cochran, who fired Mulder in 2014.

In a statement, Laguna Beach police said a $200,000 loss by JAC Wine, a start-up San Clemente wine distributor, set off the investigation in January 2016. The probe gained momentum when Mulder’s husband, Jesse, discovered more financial disarray in May of that year and took his suspicions to his wife’s clients personally, according to three of Mulder’s victims.

Agents for the FBI and Treasury Department eventually joined the inquiry led by prosecutor Asst. U.S. Attorney Scott Tenley.

“She compromised our relationship with the staff; she compromised our business in so many ways,” said Lauren Scaccia, co-owner of the Toni & Guy Hair Salon in Newport Beach.

Scaccia went into debt to cover the $291,000 prosecutors said Mulder diverted from the salon.

“We’ve been working every day to repair the damage,” Scaccia said. “It will impact us for years.”

Scaccia said she crossed paths with Mulder, her former Dana Hills High School classmate, at a wedding in Italy. Mulder, who became a hair client, represented herself as a certified public accountant and offered her services when Scaccia and partner Geneva Mendosa took over a  franchise salon in January 2015. “In February, she started embezzling from us,” said Scaccia, who would discover 77 forged checks after Mulder’s husband informed the partners of the betrayal in May 2016.

“If we asked questions, she would turn it around and convince us that all was well,” said Scaccia, who marvels at Mulder’s talent for winning the confidence of others while fabricating her professional credentials. Mulder lacked any formal professional training, Scaccia said. “She’s that good.”

Jo Ann Kurtz-Ahlers, who owns a luxury travel agency in San Juan Capistrano, met Mulder through her mother, a massage therapist with a home practice. She described her part-time former bookkeeper as helpful, quick and, by all appearances, professional.

When Kurtz-Ahlers needed business insurance, for example, Mulder volunteered to find an insurer and set up a policy. Only later did Kurtz-Ahlers discover that Mulder made up a fictional company and phony email trail to divert funds.

According to court records, Mulder drafted 44 checks from Kurtz-Ahlers between 2011 and 2016 to her Income Tax Payment account.

Pilates instructor Lauren Almeida turned to Mulder, a student in an exercise class, for help in opening her San Clemente studio, Bella Pilates, in 2008.

Almeida described Mulder as “like a sister.” The families took vacations together. Yet, Almeida says that Mulder began embezzling money “from day one,” taking out business loans without authorization, creating false identities and ultimately siphoning off $202,000, court records say.

“She was someone who gained the trust of innocent people; she was very calculated in what she did,” said Almeida, who learned of the fraud from Mulder’s husband last year. She said she changed the locks on the door and called Laguna police, whose investigation was already underway.

Mulder is due to be sentenced Aug. 1, said Laguna Beach police Sgt. James Cota. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 23 years in prison, but if the court accepts the terms of the plea agreement, Mulder would face no more than 6½ years in prison and be ordered to pay restitution.

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